This past Tuesday, April 26th, Marc Stein announced (read: tweeted) that Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors would be named the 2015-16 Coach of the Year, despite having coached only half the season due to health issues. Kerr won out with 381 total points, beating the closest second, Terry Stotts of the Portland Trailblazers, who had 335. While it’s not exactly winning by a hair, the two top candidates were much closer to each other than second place was to third. If it was going to be anyone this year, it would be one of them. In the end, it went to the coach of the team that played the greatest regular season of all time, picking up 73 wins and somehow ascending beyond the fantastic year they already had last year. The best argument for Stotts was that he took a team that had lost two of its most important players and was expected to be vying for a lottery pick and dragged it into the playoffs. It reignites one of the old arguments in sports: what’s really more impressive, going from great to historic, or massively overachieving?
The 2014-15 Trailblazers won 51 games, good for 1st place in the Northwestern Division and a fourth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They were bounced in the first round by Memphis in 5 games. This year, they won 44 games, good for 2nd in the Northwest and a fifth seed in the West. Their chances look pretty good against a crippled Clippers team missing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Here’s a quick comparison of the two teams:
Not much difference, right? They scored a tiny bit more, made a few less free throws, defended a hair better, and played a little faster. And they lost seven more games. That’s because all the differences are on the roster. They lost two starters in All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge (2nd Team All-NBA too) and Wes Matthews, solid starting guard and the team’s third highest scorer (Aldridge was the highest scorer). Those should have been crippling blows, but instead CJ McCollum stepped seamlessly into a starting role, the gaps were filled with new role players, end of bench guys moved up, and Damian Lillard decided to take everything personally. Stotts held everyone together, his system worked with new personnel, and he has the unconditional backing of his locker room. That’s a feat that wins you COTY most years.
Most years, however, one of the most unbreakable records in NBA history isn’t broken. Most years, a team doesn’t pick up 73 wins with a historic point differential in its coach’s second year. Here’s last year’s Warriors compared to this year’s:
Again, not a huge difference. They scored a couple more points shot a bit more efficiently, and took a couple more threes. They played a bit faster, and defended at a slightly lower level. Slightly. Even the roster was mostly the same. But the 2015-16 Warriors won 73 games. That’s a win percentage of 89.0. Their point differential was 10.8. Their best player sat out around 25% of their fourth quarters and they still did it. Their roster didn’t change, and they still did it. They blew a game to one of the league’s worst teams in the Los Angeles Lakers and still did it. Their head coach missed half the season, and they still did it. That’s the best knock against him, by the way. And it’s a decent point that makes this a closer argument than it usually would be. But even if Kerr wasn’t on the sidelines, it was his system, his players, the staff he built, and the culture he created that spawned the monster that is the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors.
Stotts was great this year, and he’s one of the best in the business. This won’t be the last time he appears on the COTY ballot, and he very well might win it in the future. He’s earned his place, and the love of his players, while succeeding with them. Just not this year. If the Warriors had won 67 games again, or 70, or even 71, he probably would have won…but 73 wins happened.
This Warriors team was transcendent during the season, a pure force of nature. Opposing leads disappeared in a flash, and close games became blowouts even faster. They suffocated teams on defense when they wanted to, and buried teams every chance they got. They were historic. And all respect to massive overachievement and weathering a storm of player departure, but there’s no fighting that. At the end of the day, history simply won’t be denied its laurels.